Where Should Danes Get Their Protein?

Even though Denmark was neutral during World War I, the disruption of international trade as a result of the war meant that the Danish population faced the prospect of mass starvation. That’s because the Danes had been importing about half of their grain supply, much of which was being used to feed farm animals. To keep the Danish population from starving, the Danish government assigned a physician and nutritionist named Mikkel Hindhede, who was the manager of the Danish National Laboratory for Nutrition Research, in Copenhagen, to design a system of rationing.

Hindhede decided that the Danes should stop feeding grain to farm animals, or using it to make alcohol, but should eat what grain they had themselves. Hindhede told people not to worry about getting enough protein, or enough fat. As Hindhede reported to the Journal of the American Medical Association, “No attention was paid to the protein minimum. It was held that this minimum was so low for man that it could not be reached, provided sufficient calories were furnished. While fat was regarded as a very valuable addition to the dietary, it was not considered as being necessary.”

Under Hindhede’s food rationing system, the population ate potatoes and barley, vegetables, a little bit of milk and very little butter. Consumption of meat was practically eliminated, as was consumption of alcohol. This diet was “not to Mr. Sørenson’s liking,” as the Danes say, but it was good for Mr. Sørenson’s health.

Under this rationing system, the death rate from October 1917 to October 1918 in Denmark plummeted to its lowest ever. (After that, of course, the Great Pandemic of influenza caused huge spikes in mortality all over the world, including in Denmark.) Hindhede remarked that it’s hard to figure out how much of the decrease in death rate was due to the elimination of meat from the diet, and how much to the elimination of alcohol.

Hindhede argues that if a similar system of rationing had been put in place in Central Europe, no one would have starved. Ironically, if such a system had been in place worldwide, it would have prevented the Great Pandemic. We know now that influenza pandemics are a result of raising pigs and poultry for food. The moral of the story is this: you can improve your own health dramatically if you stop eating animal-based foods; but even if you eat right, you can still get sick and die of diseases that you catch from other people who grew poultry and pigs.

Photo by @boetter

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